The Facades by Eric Lundgren

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Beyond my office window, at the university where I teach, a construction crane spans the gap between live oaks. While the crane is involved with renovating our main library, expanding its space and scope, the number of books due to remain housed in that library is being (in the parlance of diplomats) diminished, or (in the parlance of the outraged) gutted. Before all is said and done, roughly one million print items will be transferred from circulating stacks to an offsite location. I get the ethos behind this decision: the university wishes to contribute to a more tech-savvy and, as the splash page puts it, “media-rich” approach to study, advancing the number of, and access to, digital files and data. But it still has felt like watching a forced evacuation: a hollowing out of a beloved and necessary city.

Eric Lundgren—a Midwestern librarian who, with the arrival of The Facades, has brought his first book into stacks and carrels—might understand my plight.

Throughout this novel, slim in length but intricate in architecture, Lundgren deposits readers into a world of loss and mourning. The most explicit example is Molly: opera star in the blighted, fictional, American metropolis of Trude, and longtime wife of Sven Norberg, Molly goes missing on an errand (buying an egg to swallow its raw yolk). Following this vanishing, a forlorn Norberg wanders Trude, ostensibly seeking clues to return Molly home. In order to keep Molly’s presence fresh to himself, and his facially-scarred son Kyle, Norberg leaves Molly’s text testaments—grocery lists, doctor visit reminders—stuck to appliances: “I delayed buying paper towels and scheduling the eye appointment,” Norberg notes, “so that she would remain there, still pertinent to our lives.”

The novel’s sense of loss extends to many forms of fading culture and bygone beauty. Cultural curios are perceived fondly even if they creak with obsolescence. In this world, opera still claims premium column inches in the daily newspaper—and a daily newspaper still holds sway. The most grievous wound has been done to books. Stripped of funding, the Trude Public Library is forced to liquidate the stock in their stacks: not so much budget belt-tightening as “a complete starvation” of this system of knowledge and curiosity. But the employees of shuttered branches refuse to stand by reservedly. Taking advantage of local conceal-and-carry laws, workers squat in the main library, a militia within the city’s last hall of books.

Lundgren boasts remarkable comic skill, highlighted best when contrasting Trude’s crumbling infrastructure and culture with the endless font of needless capitalism. In one wickedly funny passage, Norberg visits Trude’s huge and perplexing mall, designed by iconoclastic (possibly crackpot) architect Klaus Bernhard, who viewed his edifices as a kind of “necessary violence” allowing him to destroy old forms. Navigating the ringed mall is a bit like being in a corn maze with cash registers:

We wandered its chambers and antechambers, its circles of insanely specialized stores, such as Little = Cute (every item less than two inches in diameter), the Ping Pong Palace, Remember the Crucifixion?, So Many Cookies…, and After Nature. The mall’s spiral design was called ‘totalitarian’ by Bernhard’s detractors—a sizeable contingent in Trude. There was really only one way to walk the mall: by starting at the outer ring, which housed the larger department stores. Working inward, through a series of nested circular arcades, the big stores gave way to niche shops, and the innermost rings resembled street markets, with merchants, artisans and charlatans selling their wares from crammed tables. At the very center of the mall stood a labyrinth of tall hedges—as if the mall wanted to be, at its heart, a cathedral or a seminary.

Eric Lundgren

Eric Lundgren

Most clues about Molly rot into red herrings or turn down dead alleys. In a mystery where existential crisis steers the plot, Kafka or Borges come rushing to mind. Although this book reminded me most of the Oulipo crew of prose puzzlers, particularly Georges Perec and his e-averse lipogram A Void, where a missing vowel provides both a creative exercise as well as the novel’s center. As with Perec, Lundgren pours on puns, acrostics and jouncy Scrabble clues with aplomb. His characters are more humane and rounded, though, rising above the mere constraints of wordplay.

When Norberg finally visits that eye doctor Molly penciled him in for, the optometrist wonders how his patient even functions with such poor eyesight. Norberg’s myopia about the past is willful, it’s suggested, and likely contributing to his present emotional disorientation. The orchestration of missed clues generally succeeds in layering Norberg. When these moments extend our vision of his blurriness, as they do during a remarkable ceremony of fire and forgetting between Norberg and son Kyle, the result is both touching and troubling. At times, though, subplots stack up like term paper ideas created on a buzz of caffeine, then abandoned too soon. Will Norberg join the library militia, and might that bring him closer to his beloved? Or does he align more with Trude’s bombastic mayor, who contends information “is a dubious commodity”? While Norberg tarries at length, shying from outright self-examination that could put matters into focus, I did long for Norberg to develop some kind of edge, even if it only cut through his restraints briefly, or was one he’d been cornered by circumstance into cultivating.

Whenever Lundgren redirects my eyes to what’s missing in Norberg’s perspective before the vanishing, the results are terrific. In an old interview with the paper of record, Molly notes reaching a time where routine and restlessness are the remaining choices left to her. During their courtship, Norberg admits to relief after she unsuccessfully attempts to take her mezzo-soprano talents to NYC, consoling her with assurances that their current residence is best-suited for the craft of opera, which is “about near misses, tragically missed opportunities, yearning and nostalgia. Is there any better place to cultivate these feelings than in Trude?”

No: no better place at all.

A native of St. Louis, Matthew Pitt’s first story collection, ATTENTION PLEASE NOW, won the Autumn House Prize, and was later a winner of Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Prize and finalist for the Texas Writers League Book Award. Pitt’s fiction has received numerous honors and awards, and is forthcoming or has appeared in Oxford American, BOMB, Conjunctions, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, BEST NEW AMERICAN VOICES, and elsewhere. More from this author →